Earlier this week President Obama instructed the EPA to determine whether it should grant California a waiver to set its own CO2 standards for cars. It's a hugely controversial issue, and one that's fraught with major problems for the auto industry.
First off, cars and trucks account for only 18% of total CO2 emissions in the United States. Yet it's the automotive industry that's in the cross-hairs, and California's rules are designed to "hold the automaker's feet to the fire." But even if it eliminated all automotive CO2, that still leaves 80% of other man-made sources untouched.

Besides, California's standard will merely bring the federal standard forward by four years. What's the big rush? Even more importantly, California only accounts for 1% of global CO2 emissions. So is it really fixing anything? And above all else, whatever reduction the state achieves will be immediately replenished by CO2 and other green house gasses blowing in from India, China and other points in Asia.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

"By 2020 cars will have to average about 49 mpg, trucks will have to average 33 mpg."
You can't blame the state for trying, but you can blame it for trying something that's unworkable. California set a CO2 standard that requires a fleet average of 35 mpg by 2016. But that translates into an average of roughly 43 mpg for cars and 26 mpg for trucks. By 2020 cars will have to average about 49 mpg, trucks will have to average 33 mpg.

This is California dreaming! Right now only one car can meet that 43 mpg standard and that's the Toyota Prius. Even the Honda Civic hybrid falls short. Not one truck even comes close to the standard. And remember, that standard is what the entire fleet has to average.

So you're telling me the entire fleet will be completely retooled to meet that standard by 2016? In two design cycles? I'm telling you it ain't gonna happen. It's not a question of foot-dragging or a lack of technology, or even a question of money. It simply is not physically possible to change the fleet over in that time frame. Even meeting the federal CAFE standard by 2020 will be a stretch.

Detroit isn't the only one fighting this, by the way. Toyota, Honda and Nissan are opposed to the California standard. That's telling. Those companies already meet stricter CO2 standards in Europe and Japan. But fuel prices, driving habits and customer requirements are far different in the USA and not even the big Japanese car companies see how they can meet the California standard by the 2016 deadline.

You'd hear more squawking from the Europeans except that they're exempt. Any automaker selling fewer than 60,000 vehicles in the state doesn't have to meet the standard, even though this gives giant corporations like the VW Group, the BMW Group and Daimler a free ride.

"It simply is not physically possible to change the fleet over in that time frame."
Technology is riding to the rescue, but it takes time to ramp it up. Electric cars and plug-ins will help immensely, but they're not going to be available in large numbers by 2016. Diesels are unlikely to sell well as long as diesel fuel is priced above gasoline. CNG has never caught on, despite big subsidies from the state. That means automakers will have to severely limit what they can sell in California and in the other states that plan to adopt its CO2 standard. (As of this writing: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington.)

Automakers will be forced to restrict their California fleet to vehicles that can meet those numbers. Yes, they will be able to allot a small number of full-size trucks and big cars to sell in the state, but once the law of supply-and-demand kicks in, the price for them will climb steeply. Drivers may find it more attractive to keep the vehicles they have rather than buy new ones, which defeats the effort to reduce CO2. Drivers close enough to the state line may decide it's easier to buy a new car next door and drive it home. How will that be policed?

Forget about those "Vehicle Locators" that dealers use, if the exact car you want can't be sold in your state. And pity the auction houses that are going to have to determine if auctioned cars can be legally transferred to the wrong state.

I predict that once consumers learn how limited their choices are, they're going to hit the roof. Environmentalists beware! You're setting up the system to generate a big public backlash against CO2 legislation.

Those who want to fight global warming would be better served coming up with a comprehensive national plan that actually works, rather than picking on the car companies to score political points.

Autoline Detroit
Airs every Sunday at 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television.

Autoline Detroit Podcast
Click here to subscribe in iTunes

Now follow Autoline on Twitter for ongoing updates every day!

Autoline Daily


Share This Photo X